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To Plead Our Own Cause

Contemporary slave narratives are an important part of today's antislavery movement. Watch Zoe Trodd and Andrea Nicholson explain their role.
Welcome back. We’re talking today with Andrea Nicholson, who is an expert on the contemporary slave narrative. So the testimonies and the stories, often the visual culture, and really the broader expressive culture of enslaved people today, themselves. So in that context, I did want to tell you about the image that you’ve been seeing for the last four weeks in the background to the conversations that are part of this course. It’s actually a mural made in early 2016 by survivors in India. So the central portrait is by a woman. She drew a self portrait of herself. And then the images that you can see in her dress are the stories of other survivors.
So it’s a really important example of expressive culture, visual culture, visual storytelling by enslaved people, and an important message for us to really prioritize that viewpoint of enslaved people themselves in this course. And that’s what we’re talking today about with Andrea. So in that context of the sort of larger expressive culture of enslaved people, could you give us a sense of what the contemporary slave narrative actually is? OK, so we mean quite a wide range of materials, both textual and visual materials. So sometimes we’re looking at whole autobiographies. But more commonly, we’re looking at witness statements, congressional witness statements, statements taken through non-governmental organizations, interviews. Sometimes we’re looking at writings from therapy workshops or visual representations from therapy workshops.
And you really do refer to them as narratives. That’s right, isn’t it? And I find that really important. I think especially for those of us who are historians, it makes us recognize that these are part of a much longer tradition, you know, tradition of slave narratives that dates back to the 18th, 19th centuries. When of course, the major anti-slavery organizations employed formerly enslaved people to travel around delivering lectures. When the major slave narratives published in the UK and the US sold thousands of copies, some of them were bestsellers. When the slave narrative was really at the heart of that 19th century anti-slavery movement.
And so hearing you talk about these as narratives, just as pieces of evidence, are not just as testimonies, reminds me of that first issue of the anti-slavery newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, in 1827. It had a banner on its front page that read “We wish to plead own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.” And I’ve always thought of that phrase, “We wish to plead own cause,” as just encapsulating the power of the contemporary slave narrative, the reason why it’s so important, I think, to have enslaved people’s own voices at the heart of any anti-slavery movement. Yeah, absolutely. And you do see some survivors currently talking at conferences and giving lectures. So that tradition very much continues.
But at the moment, a lot of narratives are reduced to extracts or edited sound bites. And they aren’t reproduced in full. So survivors of the moment aren’t really in a position to lead the movement. Because we’re not prioritizing narratives in the way we should. It’s really fascinating. So it sounds to me like you’re saying if we could see these narratives as being complex, as being creative, if we could get past the idea that they’re just useful soundbites, it might bring something new, and actually something quite important to the global anti-slavery movement. And so if that is true, could you just talk us through just a couple ways, I think, that these are an intervention?
Yeah, so if we prioritize slave narratives, hopefully we would create the environment for survivors to lead the movement rather than simply being contributors to the movement. And it would empower individuals to claim agency over that movement. That’s fascinating. In that sense, we’d be back to examples, wouldn’t we, in the 19th century of figures like Frederick Douglass. The idea that enslaved people’s voices and ideas and actual potentially, I don’t know, concrete strategies could be guiding the contempt anti-slavery movement. Yeah, and when you read those full slave narratives that exist already, it becomes very clear that strategies are embedded in their stories. Whether it’s indirectly or directly. So certain themes emerge around education, around care, post discovery strategies.
And then very concrete solutions are offered by some narratives. So you could look at the narratives, for example, of Beatrice and of William. Beatrice suggests quite strategic solutions such as increased monitoring of state reporting, increased monitoring of employment agencies. And then William talks more about the value of education, of activism, and of telling stories. So then we’re saying that narratives encourage us to see enslaved people as leaders. We’re saying that they contain within them a blueprint for freedom. And I think we’re also saying that’s just simply the act of recognizing them as complex and as these life stories as more than just linear leads us in a way to what William Andrews has described as literary emancipation.
You know, he’s written about 19th century narratives as being voices telling a free story. I’m struck in the narratives that I’ve read, these hundreds of narratives by contemporary slaves, a lot of people initially describing themselves in the language of objects. People describe themselves as though they were vacuum cleaners. Somebody else as though they’re just a piece of flesh or as an object. And then the act of storytelling does seem sometimes to be replacing object-hood with subject-hood. These are becoming stories that are acts of self emancipation. They’re writing themselves and telling themselves into being, becoming subjects of the story instead of objects for sale. Yeah, exactly. So it goes to that complexity we’ve been talking about.
That re-creation of identity is very common throughout narratives in the 19th century and in our contemporary slave narratives. But what you just said also highlights exactly what we were saying when we were talking about the conflicts and the complexity of full slave narratives. So when stories are told in full, you really understand that these are shifting states of existence. That you aren’t just a slave and then free. And we see that, for example, in countless narratives. But the two that I have in mind, for example, are from Jill and from Dina. Who will say even post discovery in freedom they felt they weren’t free. That they were simply an escaped slave.
So it’s not a simple case of in slavery and out of slavery. And that tells us a lot about what strategies and therapies we need to put in place for survivors. So we’ve been talking about and you’ve been quoting from and referencing contemporary slave narratives. So could we actually take a moment and ask you to read from a particular narrative? And so we can use an actual narrative to talk through and explore some of the themes we’ve been discussing. OK. So I’ve chosen a narrative by a lady called Selek’ha, who was enslaved at the age of two in Mauritania. And in fact, her entire family was enslaved as part of hereditary slavery that still exists there.
And it’s a very good demonstration of the complexity that we’ve been talking about. And it involves both her brother and her mother. So I’m going to read a couple of paragraphs. “When I was 10 years old, I was given to a Marabout, who in turn gave me to his daughter as a marriage gift to be her slave. I was never paid. But I had to do everything. And if I did not do things right I was beaten and insulted. My mistress did nothing. They kept watch over me and they never let me go far from home. But I felt my situation was wrong, because I had seen how others lived.
One day I was making the tea and I walked away and kept walking until I reached the town and found some help. My elder brother had been freed by Salem some time ago. He came to see me and told me that I would go to hell for leaving my master. My brother is an ally of my master because he was freed, and freedom is the greatest gift your master can give you.” The narrative then goes on to Selek’ha mother. And she says, “I have been a slave all my life. I was a good slave. A slave who obeys her master is a good slave. I’m still a slave. And I am looking for my freedom. I’ve spent my life working.
I tried to run away when I was younger, but they always found me in the bush and brought me back. When Selek’ha came for me, I refused to go because I’m an old lady and I’m useless. But then the master’s wife started to insult her and Selek’ha was crying, so it made me angry and I decided to leave. Selek’ha has promised to took after me and now I can rest.” So that’s a very good example. You have a brother who has gained freedom, has being emancipated by his master and whose sister is still in slavery.
And when the sister assumes her legal right not to be enslaved, he encourages her to return back to slavery in order to protect his own freedom. That says an awful lot about the control that continues to play on an individual post discovery. And then her mother is a perfect example. The mother’s narrative is a perfect example of that shifting tense. So she talks as if she is a slave and she references herself as a good slave. But in the same narrative, she also recognizes that she is no longer a slave. But she only left because of the insult to her daughter.
So you’d actually encourage us to almost close read these narratives to actually look out for shifting tenses, from past to present, maybe even shifts from first person to referring to oneself in the second or third person. You think these contain actually clues about how we might define slavery? Yeah. How we might lobby for different forms of rehabilitation in the future. Yeah. I think we need to move away from those simplistic categorizations of trying to define everything by practices, and even by the severity of harm. And we need to look at these narratives as very subtle, very insightful materials that I think are fundamental to the success and the progression of the abolitionist movement. Thank you, Andrea.
And in the next step you’ll have the chance to read these narratives by Selek’ha and by the other individuals whose stories we’ve talked about today.
Professor Zoe Trodd and Andrea Nicholson are experts on contemporary slave narratives.
In her book To Plead Our Own Cause, co-edited with Kevin Bales, Zoe gathered the stories of 95 enslaved people. Since then, Andrea has gathered more.
In this film, they explain that the slave narrative should be at the centre of antislavery work today. In the 19th century, more effectively than any other abolitionist writing, slave narratives detailed the brutality of slave life and highlighted the heroism of people who made their escape from bondage. Today, formerly enslaved people again make themselves subjects of a story instead of objects for sale, and use narrative as a tool for ending slavery. Zoe and Andrea show that the voices of enslaved people contain ideas and strategies for ending slavery.
After watching the film, please share in the comments any examples you can find of enslaved people’s own stories and voices. It might be a media article with a brief quote, a speech delivered by a survivor at a conference or political gathering, an excerpt in a report by an antislavery organisation, part of a blog, or another source. Share in the comment why you found that particular story interesting.
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Ending Slavery: Strategies for Contemporary Global Abolition

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